Uncorked: Young sommeliers relish hard journey to ‘advanced’ level

Cappie Peete of McCrady’s and Andrew Marshall of Charleston Grill are among Charleston’s small group of Advanced Sommeliers.

Wade Spees

They are young and thirsty for knowledge and determined to make it to the top.

In the world of wine and spirits, the summit is the title of Master Sommelier. Since 1977, only 186 people across the globe have been able to conquer the difficult exams and blind tastings to claim the prestigous diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers.

There are none in South Carolina — yet. But there are some on the journey who are undaunted by the steepness of the climb and their relatively young age.

At 26, Cappie Peete is Charleston’s newest and youngest Advanced Sommelier. It represents the third of the court’s four levels. Peete, who is beverage director at McCrady’s, passed her exam in April.

Andrew Marshall, 31, is assistant sommelier at Charleton Grill. He reached the same advanced level in August. Marshall now belongs to an elite corps in Charleston, including Peete, his boss Rick Rubel at Charleston Grill, Brad Ball of Social Restaurant & Wine Bar, and wine consultant Patrick Emerson, formerly of the Maverick restaurant group.

Peete, of James Island, is a 2009 graduate of the University of South Carolina with a bachelor’s degree in hotel, restaurant and tourism management. Marshall, of Sullivan’s Island, graduated from the University of North Carolina with a biology degree.

These two are always sniffing around, literally. So we decided to sniff out how they got to where they are and why. (This is an edited version; see a longer version at postandcourier.com/food.)

Q. At what point did you get interested in wine and spirits and why?

Cappie: Well, I took a wine course as an elective my senior year in college. ... For fun, really. They actually offered the introductory level of sommelier training as an add-on to that course. I took it on a whim and passed, and thought it was a good direction to take. Everyone was worried about finding jobs when they graduated.

Andrew: I kind of backed my way into it. I went to a traditional four-year college and had a biology background. But restaurants were something I worked in from my early teens through school. ... The wine is something I grew up with in my house. My father was not a connoisseur but someone who always enjoyed wine. It wasn’t anything more than a social activity but it was something pleasurable, and that really drew me toward it and working in restaurants.

(My) science background and all the intracacies (of wine), and the different years, different areas and different grapes kind of fit how I look at things. It also allowed me to be social with it. Wine and food is a very social event, and I like bringing people together.

Q. Do you think you have a more advanced palate than the average person?

Cappie: I honestly don’t think so. I think a lot of people who go into this feel they do. But I feel mine to a certain degree was kind of taught. I have learned from hearing how someone else describes it (a wine) and translating it into my own words, and training myself to pick out those intracacies. ... You can kind of educate your mind to understand what your palate tells you.

Andrew: We all have the ability to perceive things, but it is that practice of picking things out about the wine, repeatedly talking about wines and listening to other people.

My palate is no better than 99 percent of the people out there. It is something that we pay attention to. You create associations and memories basically. ... I’ve never been a “super taster” and that’s a very interesting thing. But for our purposes, as far as a Master Sommelier, it’s more of a deductive thing. Even if you know what something is you have to be able to get there through all the clues.

Q. So, how do you train your palate?

Andrew: First, in talking about palate, I think the main thing to recognize is that your nose is doing the work. You taste salty, sweet, bitter and those things but all of the other things we talk about — cherry, lime — is from olfactory. So, we smell flowers, we smell fruit at the grocery stores, we smell rocks, we smell wood, we smell tobacco, anything we find around.

Cappie: It’s kind of building that vocabulary, that scent memory. I would smell something, and gosh that smells so familiar, but I couldn’t put a word to it. ... It just comes from smelling a lot of different things.

(Also) We’re in a blind tasting group and we taste; when we’re really going strong, once a week or more.

Andrew: Yeah, about six or seven people get together. I got an email today talking about it.

Q. Advanced sommelier is the third level; how much harder was it than achieving the first two?

Andrew: Advanced follows the same idea as certified (the second level). There is a written test, a little bit of multiple choice but mainly short answer ... and exponentially more difficult.

Cappie: The understanding is that the biggest jump between the four (levels) is between the second and third, just because the formatting is so different.

Andrew: And we had to correct a wine list.

Cappie: They want you to catch if you are listing in the wrong region, if the pricing was off, if ....

Andrew: Anything. Spelling, grapes, anything. Minimum sugar levels for an area in Greece. The best vintage in the 1940s for vintage port. Anything they want to throw out is fair game.

Cappie: One singular producer from Bulgaria.

Andrew: One vineyard that is sourced by one producer and hope you know who that is and where it is. And when was the first vintage.

Q. How could you possibly prepare for that? You are self-educated.

Cappie: For us, things have gotten a little bit easier — I certainly don’t want to minimize it — there are a lot of resources available to us (now) as far as studying goes. Just a few years ago there weren’t. There’s a website created in the last couple of years called Guildsomm. It is just full of information. It has study guides about regions, practice tests, discussion forums, all the laws.

Andrew: For all of wine geeks to talk about things.

Cappie: It’s good networking. You can chat with people who are preparing for the same test. It’s updated constantly and the information is very accurate, which is fantastic.

Andrew: I also have a group that are all studying for their masters in which I receive sample test questions. We all write five questions and send them. I get questions every day for practice tests. It’s basically 40 to 50 people across the United States who are studying.

Cappie: When you’re doing your tasting (for the advanced exam) you’re doing it orally. You’ve got a panel of masters in front of you and you have 25 minutes to blind-taste six wines.

Q. So that’s got to be the hardest part...

Cappie: Everybody has different strengths. Fortunately, we have really great group in town. Rick and Andrew are incredibly generous and willing to set up some wines for me on a regular basis so just getting comfortable with that format really made me very comfortable with that portion of the exam. I felt very confident in that.

Theory (written questions) was probably my hardest. I hate to say that because I feel that is the one you have the most control over to a certain degree. But, like we said, anything is fair game and it comes down to what questions are they going to ask you.

The third part is service — practical is what they call it — and I do that every night on the floor so I changed my mindset about it the second time: Just get into your world, just be comforable and have fun with it.

Andrew: I think the hardest part for me is, you have to put the nerves in play in all three portions. Speaking in front of three masters talking about six wines with no feedback is an intimidating process. They don’t tell you whether you are right or wrong; you just walk away like, ‘What just happened?’

Cappie: You never know.

Andrew: Service as well. Think about standing in front of people you look up to in what you do for your profession and they’re judging you on every little thing. Which direction you are moving around the table, which arms are you using, how are your mannerisms, are you looking at the guest’s eyes? All the time they are asking you questions hoping you know the answer. It’s not like you’re just opening a bottle of wine. They’re asking about the wine, the producer, its first vintage, what grapes are in it.

Q. How focused are you on becoming a master?

Cappie: I’ve always wanted to do that. I took intro at 21 and joked with myself that I wanted to be a master by the time I was 30, which I suppose is still a possibility. I came from (from the advanced exam) and said give yourself a break but don’t lose momentum. ... You come back feeling exhiliarated, look at what I just did, I could do so much more. And so you want to stick with it.

The neat thing about the master level, it’s the same format — you’ve got the three portions, it’s just much harder. But, with the advanced, if you fail, you have to retake the entire thing. With the master, you can hold whatever section you passed for three years. If you don’t pass within three years you start from the beginning.

Andrew: It sounds great, but realize there is about a 95 percent fail rate.

Q. Andrew, are you focused?

Andrew: I don’t think anyone has gotten to the advanced level without a focus. I think the first two levels are definitely doable. The third level, if you are not focused on that, it’s not going to happen. I really have to set deadline for myself.

Q. What’s your deadline for that?

Andrew: It’s not so much the test as when I prepare for the test and how much I prepare.

Q. How does one learn the differences between wine varietals and wine regions?

Andrew: The thing is, you bring history into account, ecology into account, biology and geology and trying to make sense of them all on top of what you have learned and tasted. Weather patterns, which grapes are grown in which areas, temperatures, certain soil in certain areas, are all clues that this comes from this country and only this country.

Q. You can deduct that through smell and taste? What’s the first thing you deduct?

Cappie: The format of deductive tasting starts with sight. What color is it, how bright is it, how clear is it, and that can tell you anything: Is it filtered, is it fine, is if overripe, underripe, is it a thin-skinned grape, a thick-skinned grape, is it new, is it old?

Andrew: We’ll spend 15 seconds typically on sight and you can get a lot of information just from that. Sight and then the nose. ... How ripe is the fruit, is it tropical or citrus fruit, is it tart red fruit, black fruit? Those are all clues to what grape it is.

Q. So when you taste, taste being No. 3 of the sensory experience, what does that tell you?

Andrew: We first confirm all the things we smell, the fruit, the earth, the mineral. Does it match up with what we smell? If not, it may be a clue as to where it is, how old it is. Is that fruit as you smelled it? Then you see is it sweet, is it dry? You can kind of assess quality by weight, finish, acid, body.

Cappie: Structure is really important. There are times I’ve had to blind taste when I’ve been sick, and you really can’t smell anything, you have to rely on sturcture. Is it full-bodied, light-bodied, does it have a lot of tannin, does it have a lot of acidity, does it have high alcohol, low alcohol? All of that indicates where it’s from, how the wine was treated, what the vintage was like.

Q. How has the growth in craft spirits and beer changed the job of sommelier?

Cappie: It’s definitely pushed me. For me, I’ve never bartended, so cocktail knowledge was something I only knew from being curious about it and wanting to try new cocktails and classic cocktails. Classic cocktails are the big deal.

It has forced me to consider beer and cocktails and other spirits more with pairings, and try to not think of it as only food and wine pairings but food and beverage pairing, and trying to incorporate ... Sometimes there’s a dish that comes around and wine isn’t going to work.

Andrew: It broadens your palate. You have that many more things to play with.

Q. What’s the wine terminology that trips up people most?

Andrew: Dry. Dry is a measure of sugar. If it’s sweet or dry, it’s a scale. ... You’ll hear the word, a “dry” Chardonnay thrown around a lot, and that means something different to every person. Trying to figure out what that means is part of the job.

Cappie: I think one of the harder parts of our jobs is trying to understand what their (diners’) descriptions mean. People come in all the time and say they want a sweet red wine, and we don’t really have any sweet red wine.

Andrew: But that means something to them.

Cappie: That means fruit-forward, juicy, jammy, fruit. It could be a Pinot. I really don’t have any (wines) that have a lot of measurable, residual sugar. It’s not technically sweet, but is perceived as.

Andrew: I get as much enjoyment figuring out what they actually want than trying to push something on them. It’s not what I like. I love to give them suggestions but I want them to mesh with theirs.

Q. Pronunciation-wise, what is the word that people have the most trouble with?

Cappie: Sommelier (laughs).

Q. Your average diner knows how much about wine?

1. I’ll take a glass of red (or white).

2. Fairly clueless but tries to impress.

3. Is less than $10-a-bottle drinker at home.

4. Has come a long way in the past 10 years.

5. Really wants to know how to pair wine with food.

Andrew: Has come a long way. I’ve worked in Charleston in restaurants for 10 years now. I have been able to see the progression. People are interested in wine, it’s not just red or white. People know things about wine that we do not, on a daily basis. We learn from them as much as they learn from us.

Cappie: I always say to the table, whatever you think tastes good is going to be a good pairing. Period. Drink what you like.

I always ask, what do you drink at home? That is my first question.

Q. What is people’s biggest misconception about sommeliers?

Cappie: That I’m going to come over and try to sell you the most expensive wine on the list, that I’m going to come over and make you feel stupid. ... (but) I want to make sure you find the best $40 a bottle wine on our list that suits your palate.

Andrew: Money is part of the equation in a restaurant, it always is, but that’s not our first goal, ever. The experience is definitely No. 1 for our guests and making them feel comfortable.

Cappie: So they’ll come back.

Q. What is the most underappreciated wine right now?

Andrew: For me it always comes back to Riesling and Syrah. Those are two things I love to drink and think are incredibly versatile.

Cappie: My first thought is Riesling also, because I feel it has a reputation of earlier days of Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun and all of that. Germany spent a long time trying to rebuild that reputation. ... To me, Riesling is almost a miracle pairing. It works with almost anything.

Q. What is an underappreciated region?

Andrew: How about Beaujolais?

Cappie: Yes, that’s a good one.

Andrew: You think Beaujolais Nouveau, correct? There is what we call Cru Beaujolais, which is Beaujolais treated as a fine wine. Beaujolais uses the Gamay grape — Nouveau uses that same grape in a much, much different way. There are producers that make the most expensive bottles of Burgundy that also make a beautiful Beaujolais for a fraction of the cost. They are spectacular wines, very food-friendly and great for our warm weather.

Q. What is your favorite wine of all time?

Andrew: I kind of preach on the experience thing. Those wines that I remember, those are part of experiences I’ve shared with other people ... It’s a 1983 Guigal la Ladonne Cote-Rotie, which is Syrah from the Rhone Valley in France. I had it at the bar at Charleston Grill with a group of friends. I can remember that wine without a problem. It’s a wine I would love to revisit again.

Cappie: One of the most memorable bottles I had was with Brad Ball in Las Vegas, when he passed his exam. We went out to a nice dinner and I had brought with me a bottle of 1985 Salon Champagne.